Obama Going Abroad With World Watching
Foreign Policy Credentials Are at Stake
Saturday, July 19, 2008; Page A01
Sen. Barack Obama will make his international debut as a Democratic presidential candidate in the coming days with a weeklong tour of the Middle East and Europe designed to deepen his foreign policy credentials, confront questions at home about his readiness to be commander in chief, and signal the possibility of a new era in U.S. relations with the rest of the world.
Obama's visit is among the most unusual ever undertaken by a presumptive White House nominee, planned with the attention to detail of a trip by a president and as heavily hyped abroad as at home. The senator from Illinois will meet with a succession of foreign leaders, make symbolically important visits and hold at least one large public event -- all with an eye to how the trip is playing in the United States.
But the tour is fraught with risks. The large media contingent that will follow Obama means that any misstep or misstatement will be magnified and potentially read as evidence of his inexperience, adding to doubts about him. If he successfully navigates his itinerary, however, the political payoffs could be significant enough to affect the outcome of his race against Republican Sen. John McCain this fall.
"The reward is potentially very big: that he substantially closes the very large and only large gap he has with John McCain and establishes a foreign policy credential," said Republican strategist Vin Weber.
But Weber said the trip could easily backfire if Obama does not carefully calibrate his message or if he creates the impression that he is running a premature victory lap. "He has thrown caution to the winds on this and gambled that the American people will like essentially what's going to look like a presidential trip to Europe," Weber said, adding: "America would like the president to be more popular in the world, but they don't want to elect the president of Europe."
Obama officials were at pains in a conference call yesterday to play down the political ramifications of the tour. "The trip is not a campaign trip," senior adviser Robert Gibbs told skeptical reporters. He and other advisers described the travel as a way for Obama to strengthen relationships and to exchange views on a variety of international issues.
McCain advisers scoff at the notion that this is not campaign-related, as do others. The Republican's campaign will be monitoring the trip, and it e-mailed reporters a paper yesterday called "Barack Obama Official Travel Briefing." The 17-page document included suggested questions for Obama, and among the sections were "Obama's lack of leadership," "Obama's lack of knowledge on Afghanistan" and "Obama's weak policy on Iran."
For security reasons, Obama's campaign has been reluctant to share details about his exact itinerary, but it breaks down into three segments: the broader Middle East; Europe; and Iraq and Afghanistan.
Obama's stops in Iraq and Afghanistan are being coordinated through his Senate office and the Defense Department, and officials have declined to confirm for the record the exact dates he will be there. The Democrat's campaign is coordinating his visits to the Middle East and Europe, which according to overseas reports will begin Tuesday and run through the week.
In Jordan and Israel, Obama will have to confront the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the threat that Israel feels from Iran. He will meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and other Israeli leaders, as well as with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, in what promises to be one of the busiest and most important days of his trip. Not incidentally, that part of his trip will be an opportunity for him to reassure nervous members of the American Jewish community that he would be a reliable friend of Israel.
The Middle East visit will be followed by a rapid tour of three European capitals, where he will sit down with the leaders of Britain, France and Germany. Anti-American sentiment has increased dramatically in those countries during President Bush's nearly eight years in office, and Obama's candidacy has attracted enormous interest as a sign of possible change in relations.
Obama's largest public event of the trip will be held in Berlin, and it has already been a source of controversy. German Chancellor Angela Merkel earlier criticized the senator for considering holding the event at the Brandenburg Gate, calling it inappropriate for a U.S. presidential candidate to use the historic site for the equivalent of a political rally. Campaign officials said yesterday that Obama had earlier ruled out speaking there and that other sites remain under discussion.
Obama visited Iraq in early 2006 and has not visited Afghanistan. Publicly critical of the president's policy of increasing the number of troops in Iraq, he has called for an end to the war and the withdrawal of combat forces over a 16-month period. But he faces questions from McCain and some military commanders about the rigidity of that timetable and about his initial opposition to a policy that has resulted in a dramatic reduction in violence there.
Obama's travels are unusual but not unique in this campaign. McCain visited the Middle East and Europe this past spring, although his trip drew far less attention. What marks Obama's tour as different is the size, scope and media attention it will generate.
Although Obama has been highly critical of Bush's foreign policy and has tangled repeatedly with McCain over Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and other international issues, his advisers said he does not intend to make policy declarations while overseas.
"It is important to note that it is not our intent to make policy or to negotiate," foreign policy adviser Susan Rice said. "There's one president of the United States at any given time, and we will certainly respect that."
Obama will give interviews with network anchors while abroad and probably will meet with the press corps that follows him. In those settings, he will almost certainly be urged to discuss his differences with McCain and with the administration and to further clarify his views on Iraq.
Kenneth M. Duberstein, who was White House chief of staff to President Ronald Reagan, said Obama must avoid any sign of presumptiveness during his time abroad. "You're not making pronouncements on foreign soil, but you're taking things in and showing a command and mastery of what is expected of you, should you be elected president," he said. "It is a tightrope to walk, and the choreography has to be pitch-perfect."
One Obama foreign policy adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss the goals of the trip, said the candidate will be playing to three audiences while abroad: the foreign leaders with whom he would be dealing "so he can get off to a fast start"; the people of the countries he visits as a way to rebuild confidence and relationships; and the American public "to provide reassurance."
McCain has an advantage in how Americans think the candidates would deal broadly with terrorism, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll. They are nearly tied on the question of how they would handle Iraq. Obama, however, has a wide lead on the question of which candidate could change the U.S. image abroad. Democratic strategist Geoffrey Garin said Obama's ability to use the trip to deepen those impressions would be "an exceptionally important accomplishment" in the context of the campaign.
Regarding whether Obama can ease concerns about his readiness to be commander in chief, former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) said the candidate does not have to convince everyone on that front.
"Obama doesn't have to prove to right-wingers that he's ready to be commander in chief," he said. "He has to prove to moderate Democrats and independents that he is a serious person who can operate on the world stage with a moderate chance of being successful. . . . He has to have enough credibility not to be unacceptable on national security. He doesn't have to have enough credibility for that to be his strong suit."